Both the Samuel and Luke passages this week center around families making yearly trips to the cultic sacrificial site and children playing outsized roles there. This is not accidental. The gospel writer consciously echoes many of the themes of 1 Samuel to drive home the point that Luke is going to tell the story of God setting up a new anointed leader, not David this time, but Jesus.
Consider John the Baptizer pronouncing God’s judgement on those who came out from Jerusalem, and particularly on those tax collectors and military police who used greed and coercion to enrich themselves while officially working toward keeping the temple running under Roman occupation. This sounds to me a lot like the critique in 1 Samuel of the Eli and the tabernacle priests by the unnamed “man of God”: “Why then look with greedy eye at my sacrifice and my offerings which I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves upon the choicest parts of ever offering of my people, Israel?” (1 Sam 2:29). In both Luke and 1 Samuel, someone comes from outside the sacrificial system to critique the greed being displayed.
Probably the strongest point of comparison is in Mary and Hannah’s songs. After divine intervention that led to these two women becoming pregnant, they both sang songs of praise and upheaval. Read for similar themes of exalting/magnifying God, the LORD providing salvation from enemies, and most importantly, the raising up and lowering on people based on humility and pride, respectively:
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none beside you; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. The barren has borne seven, but she who had many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Sam 2:1-10)
Then Mary sang:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
Mary and Hannah both react strongly to their divinely aided conceptions by not only praising God, but praising God in particular for the upheaval of society, casting down the arrogant and raising the humble.
The final comparison is, again, the setting for the gospel story from Luke for this week: Both sets of parents, Hannah and Elkanah, and Mary and Joseph, went to the sacred precincts for at least one of the pilgrimage festivals (1 Sam 2:19, Luke 2:41-42) and left their children there. Obviously, Samuel’s stay at the tabernacle was intentional on behalf of his parents, while Jesus’ stay surprised his parents, but the similarity stands.
I have to say, I read the Luke passage in a new light this year after a frightening experience. I lost my son ever so briefly when he ran away from me at my mom’s megachurch’s Christmas Eve service. There were thousands of people coming and going in the 30 minutes between packed services, and my two-year-old just darted into the crowd. Thankfully, he is very loud and he was wearing a Moroccan garment that stood out against the midwestern finery, and so I was able to catch up with him in less than a minute. Those seconds of panic though were overwhelming to me as I tried to fight my way through the crowd, holding my baby and trying to catch up with a little boy who was more interested in exploring the church than staying with his father.
Imagine the scene, then a couple thousand years earlier, when hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Jerusalem three times a year. The city swelled many times beyond capacity as the great pilgrim caravans with thousands of people in each came from every direction. Most people simply camped outside the city gates when they could not rent space in a guestroom. Imagine the children simply running around and mixing with cousins and friends as the parents talked and prepared for the holy meals. Imagine trying to keep track of one child, much less the seven-ish children that Mary and Joseph probably had at this point (see Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55-56).
Joseph would have taken twelve-year-old Jesus and maybe some other family into the temple courts with him to purchase one of the lambs. He would have waited in a line hours long for a priest to be available to help him kill the sheep in accordance with all the laws. As the priest ensured that the lamb’s blood was dashed against the altar, Joseph and his sons got to work removing the sheep’s skin, organs, and offal. They tied the sheep to a metal pole frame, and then waited in another line to use the public Passover ovens to roast their sheep [very similarly to how Samaritans celebrate Passover today]. Once the sheep was roasted, Joseph would have sent a child to have Mary and the rest of the children come to meet him at whatever place they had prepared for the ritual meal.
This was not the same as Passover seder meals today which developed into their current form of family meals in the home over several hundred years later. This was a meaty, temple-centric pilgrimage feast which necessitated long distance travel, long waits, multiple locations, and the knowledge and trust that children would run around in larger pilgrimage caravans from the same region who traveled, camped, celebrated and returned together (Luke 2:44). As Jesus was twelve years old and their oldest, he was probably the child that Mary and Joseph worried about least, at least until it was clear that he was missing.
Jesus, however, was taking advantage of a custom that on Shabbat and on festivals when the Sanhedrin did not meet and religious courts were not in session, that the sages would assemble at the various places along the ramparts of the walls next to the temple, and listen to the questions of the people and provide rulings (BT Sanhedrin 88b, Luke 2:46-47). It is not clear if the Holy Family came just for Passover and returned still during the festival of unleavened bread. I think this is most likely, but otherwise, there were regular courts at the entrances to the temple mount and to the temple courtyard which Jesus could have visted (also BT Sanhedrin 88b).
Jesus’s questions and answers were clearly impressive to all who heard (Luke 2:47), and he stood out for his devotion to his Father. In pointing out that Jesus was a child prodigy in devotion to the sacred, Luke purposefully calls to mind how the prophet Samuel started his service to God at twelve years old (Josephus, Antiquities 5:348) and how David as a young shepherd was anointed to be the leader of God’s people (1 Sam 16:1). Finally, Luke says that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), echoing the earlier description of Samuel, who also, “continued to grow in stature and in favor with the LORD and man” (1 Sam 2:26). Even in his maturing and developing, Jesus echoed earlier patterns.
The point of these similarities between 1 Samuel and Luke is that the reader should pay attention to Jesus. Just as God raised up a new kind of prophet and anointed a new kind of king in Samuel and David, respectively, God was raising up a new thing in Jesus, the prophet/priest/king/messiah/savior. It should not be surprising that God’s work in human history echoes God’s previous work. Rather, we should take comfort that the God at work throughout history continues to creatively redeploy God’s story to work out salvation for God’s people.